Where To Begin

by

10/14/2011

Neighborhood: Upper West Side

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I was late to the 79th Street Boat Basin, which meant I had missed the introductions of name and sailing experience. Convenient, since of the two, I had only a name. My new boss was telling us our mooring was at NW2. I scanned the orientation packet: bowline, jib, vang. I had thought the position was boat bartending. Halyard, stanchion, cleat. I needed the job. I leaned into the ear of the guy beside me.

“Feed me some vocab,” I whispered.

He started, turned to look at me. Blue eyes.

“Vocabulary,” I said.

“There’s no more port wine left,” he whispered back.

I looked at him.

“Port, left,” he said, looking down at his left hand, palm up. “Starboard, right.” His right hand held an invisible plate next to the first.

“I’m really good at physical stuff,” I said. “Work. I mean, farms. And sports.” I gestured over his palms, indicating winds and oceans and the muscle memory it took to move safely through both. “I learn fast.”

I left orientation early to make an apartment interview in Brooklyn. My brother was moving to the city in a week. The apartment had bars on the windows, but the sublettee had cat-eye glasses and a tiny ponytail.

“Jessie,” she said with one downward handshake. She apologized that her roommates weren’t home but assured me they were the greatest, bestest friends from art school in the south. I am from Kentucky. Her voice rang with sensible but persistent joy, and really, my only responsibility was to ensure the place wasn’t a crack den.

“Above and beyond,” I said, reaching for the deposit.

A week later my family arrived to shuttle their second child from landlocked horse farm to concrete island. My mom and I stood outside my Park Slope apartment, the base camp, loading the Subaru with boxes. She was taking pictures because she believes her children will find home here. A memorialized beginning supplies faith in what follows; you insist it is, in fact, a beginning. I was posing on the sidewalk when the guy, the sailor, Mr. Vocabulary, exited the building directly across the street. He mounted a red vintage motorcycle, kicked it into gear, and drove past us, uphill, into the morning.

“Oh my God,” I said.

Right after orientation, I had emailed my new boss to apologize for the tardy arrival. He had replied, saying all fine, but how much sailing experience do you actually have? We struck a deal involving the company’s adult sail camp and blitzkrieg training. I bought a book and a length of practice rope. I read the book and started calling the rope ‘line.’ Class started the Saturday after the Subaru’s departure. My sailor was my instructor.

“You’ll never guess,” I said. “Red motorcycle, 8 AM, Tuesday, Twelfth Street?”

“My girlfriend lives there,” he said toward the boathouse. He followed his voice inside and deep into a tide book

To his triangle back, I said softly, “I live there.”

On the water, somewhere around the cross-town canyon of 42nd Street, he taught me the choreography of the bowline with a rhyme about rabbits. Lessons and landmarks disappeared. We swapped the basic details, then stories. We echoed each other. We both had studied photography; he had taken it much further and was completing an MFA. Both our mothers were forgiving Catholics who had shopped for our school clothes at Goodwill. For a glossy magazine, he had photographed the southern horse show circuit.

“Oh, my brother just moved in with some southern artist types,” I said. “Shitty block, very happy people.”

“Where?” he said.

“Off the G,” I said. “Gates.”

He looked at me like he had during vocabulary lessons.

“Where exactly?”

“Oh, a good walk, Gates-and-something,” I said. The sun filled everything. The wind moved us toward the Statue of Liberty.

“Did he take Jessie’s room?”
“What?” I said. “Jessie Sears?” She had such a tiny ponytail.

He laughed the way you do when a miracle shakes your shoulders. “Chris,” he said. “Your brother, Chris. He lives in my house. Your brother is Chris.” I wanted to hold his grin in my hands. I or that girlfriend, one of us was sunk.

On charters for the forty-two foot Beneteau, there is a captain and a mate. When you work a sail, you captain or you mate that sail. My boss paired my sailor and I together for a few real jobs, trial runs. After that, when Mr. Vocab agreed to captain, he called to see if I wanted to mate. Yes, sure, absolutely. We captained and mated all summer.

Late June is proposal season, so every sunset job is a guy with a diamond and a woman with ready hands. The breathless couples invited us to weddings, included us in their engagements photos, confided the Statue of Liberty was their self-imposed deadline, asked us if everyone did this, left us in the cockpit while they made out on the bow, left us with the last of their champagne so we could toast the night after we docked. They all wanted to believe we were together. An older couple even assured us we would have kind, beautiful children. Blue eyes! I wanted to shout.»

Aside from sharing his motorcycle downtown for tacos, we still hadn’t touched each other when we stole the dinghy for a midnight tour of the Jersey coast. And still not when we drove two hours upstate to buy orchard apples in the rain. I had memorialized our beginning, though, and maybe this was the wrong time, but this was definitely the start of something, meant for some time.

When I returned to Kentucky for Christmas, he was driving cross-country. He stopped for a night. Finally, finally. One night would turn to three. As we settled beneath the blankets, I imagined my mother in the morning, with a grin of conspiracy, whisking pancakes, something she did not do for other boyfriends.

Some six hours later, sooner than I imagined, she shouted, “Kate?” Then, immediately panicking, “Kate?”

“Oh boy,” I said into his chest.

“Chris?” she called. “Kate? Chris?” She was near the top of her register.

“Okay, okay,” I said, pulling on yesterday’s clothes.

I arrived to the kitchen as my brother streaked through, literally, with a soup pot full of water. The water sloshed onto his boxers. The back yard billowed black smoke.

Mom rushed after him, extending two saucepans awkwardly in front of her. “The compost was frozen shut. I dumped the fireplace ashes in the trashcan.” She shouldered open the storm door. “Leaves inside. It was leaning against the shed.”

The shed was, indeed, in flames. My bedmate appeared.

“What’s going on up here?” he said.

“Mom lit the shed on fire. Apparently the hose is frozen.” I revved, reached for the decorative tin pail above the fridge. As I filled the pail in the tub upstairs, I heard him opening and closing cabinets below. When I exited the backdoor with my full bucket, I was following him across the yard. Thinking he had nothing to offer, I scooted in front and pitched my water onto the almost-under-control flames. He sprayed something from a red cylinder until the something and the flames died completely. A fire extinguisher.

“Melinda,” he said, handing the extinguisher to my mom. “You’ll want to get that recharged.”

“Where did you get that?” I said. My heart awoke all over again.

“Always under the sink.”

My brother rolled his eyes. My mom beamed exactly like I had imagined. We were half-clothed around a melted trashcan, breaking the grass’s frost in borrowed shoes. I wanted to high-five the clouds.

Back in New York, in our winter lives, things were not the same. Things were horrible. We spent months in an indecisive dance. He was moving in the summer, at the completion of his MFA, and we had a hard time talking when there wasn’t a physical task to talk around and through. We had communicated in lessons and word games and stories of miraculous similarity. In the sloppy cold, walking to an unremarkable movie, how were we to believe where—or whether— we were going? We were at the stage that takes work, and we were overbundled in unflattering coats.

When the cold broke, our friendship—much less any sort of relationship—was a mess, but he asked me to sail with him, the first sail of the season. The charter was two middle-aged French women who didn’t speak a lick of English or boats. The winds were fifty miles an hour. The Beneteau would never tip completely, but the French women wanted to float lazy-river style, so we scrabbled to keep the boat from heeling deep into the Hudson.

“You’re wrapping the wrong way,” he said over the jib’s luffing.

“Yeah, yeah, okay.” I snapped the sheet to wrap clockwise.

The poor women could only understand the tone of our voices, which said something was capsizing. Not you, us, I wanted to tell them.

“It’s really fine,” he said to the two women, who had moved near the life vests. “Just wind,” he waved his hand in the air. “Wind.”

“Remember stealing the dinghy?” I said.

“I steal that dinghy like it’s my job,” he countered.

I persevered. “Do you remember how we met? Do you remember exactly?”

“You took a sailing lesson.” He lunged into trimming the main.

We finished the tack. The French women hugged each other. Instead of hanging behind him on a shroud, like usual, I joined him at the wheel. We bounced over wake. Steadying myself, I reminded him of the typed orientation packets and my frazzled rush down the dock. The sound of the fenders against the wall, my bad haircut, the springtime smell of wet polyurethane. I reminded him there’s no more port wine left. My litany of details was a plea, next time, to risk. At the very least, pay attention. Two people only get one beginning.

Kate grew up in Kentucky and now lives in Brooklyn. Her writing has also appeared in The New York Press and The Accidental Extremist.

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